Cadillac would have you think of the new 1998 Seville as a "muscle car in an Armani suit." Muscle this latest GM flagship certainly has, with 300 horsepower on hand from its 4.6-liter V8; as for the Armani reference, you be the judge.
Cadillac claims the car is at last ready to compete face-to-face with the likes of Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW.
In its design, the '98 Seville looks like a slimmer, trimmer version of the outgoing model, although at first glance it's hard to tell the two apart. The new car is identified by its lack of chrome at the rear and its larger taillights. Up front, the overhang is shorter, the awkward bumper overriders are gone and new, projector beam headlights lend a fresh air of sophistication. In short, the Seville moves from being a somewhat garish American cousin to a car with a degree of international design flair. You might choose this Cadillac not just because it is different but because it makes a legitimate, elegant design statement of its own.
One area in which the Seville continues to stand apart from the luxury pack is its front-wheel-drive layout. In a class that favors rear-wheel drive overwhelmingly, the Seville is clearly the odd man out. But Cadillac claims its customer research shows that buyers are "indifferent" to the drivetrain configuration. Cadillac admits that five years from now, its next-generation Seville (and all other models in the division's range) will be switching to rear-wheel drive. The new Seville's mechanical makeup also has another weakness compared to its rivals: a four-speed automatic, when most in the class boast five-speed transmissions.
These factors apart, the Seville compares very well on paper. When pitched against the competitors Cadillac is aiming at in the U.S. market — BMW 540i, Mercedes-Benz E420, Jaguar XJ6 and Lexus LS400 — the Seville STS offers standout performance, innovative high-technology features and top-drawer equipment at a competitive price. The power of the so-called Northstar DOHC 32-valve V8 is sufficient to set a claimed 0-60 mph time of 6.8 seconds, quicker than all rivals except the BMW 540i. And equipped with Z-rated tires, the Seville will power on to a 150 mph top speed.
1998 Cadillac Seville
Even before the changes for the 1998 model, the Seville offered excellent performance for the money, but it came without the level of refinement and ride and handling finesse that one expects in the luxury league. The new car raises the bar to the point that in terms of dynamics, the Cadillac is very close to the BMW and Benz standard, while in comfort and refinement, the balance has swung in the American car's favor.
Driving the new Seville back-to-back with the old, you notice the difference in ride immediately. The busy, agitated motion of the '97 car is replaced by a smooth, absorbent yet well-damped ride motion. This transformation can be traced to the adoption of GM's G-body platform as the basis for the new Seville. This platform, already proven in the Buick Riviera coupe and well-regarded Oldsmobile Aurora, is much stiffer than the previous chassis — torsional rigidity is up by 50 percent — and enabled Cadillac engineers to tune the suspension system for considerably tauter handling, without degrading the ride comfort.
To embellish the basic Macpherson-strut front/multilink rear suspension, the Seville is equipped with a pair of systems that help control stability and ride comfort. Dubbed StabiliTrak, the first system uses sensors (including one that monitors steering angle) to apply the front brakes independently in order to maintain directional control. Ride control is enhanced by use of ultra-fast-acting dampers, which adjust each corner of the car to diminish body roll and diagonal pitching. Cadillac feels its system provides near-active suspension level of body control without the complexity, weight and cost penalties incurred by high-pressure hydraulic systems.
In normal driving, the effects of the StabiliTrak and adjustable damping systems are hard to detect, but when pressing on through a series of fast, tight corners, the lack of excessive body motion — especially in pitch — is quite evident. In fact, Cadillac engineers claim the Seville is superior in controlling what they call the "head toss" factor than even the vaunted BMW 540i.
1998 Cadillac Seville
The Seville's high-technology portfolio continues with its speed-sensitive Magnasteer III system, which has a new feature that determines via sensors the car's lateral acceleration and increases steering effort accordingly. The Seville now provides better feel at the wheel during hard corners than used to be the case, and responsiveness is also greatly improved by a switch to a straight, rather than variable, steering gear ratio. The torque steer you would expect in such a powerful (295 pound-feet) front-wheel-drive car is evident in certain situations — maximum acceleration over bumpy roads, for instance — but has been all but eliminated under normal conditions. All in all, the Seville's handling is much more capable and convincing than ever. Dynamically, it is closing in on Europe's best, though a 540i would still be the one to pick if point-to-point speed was the main requirement.
On the inside
Another area where the new Seville makes up significant ground on its rivals is its interior. The cabin has been reworked extensively, with some major innovations, such as the first use of adaptive seats. Based on burn treatment technology, these seats use continuously adjusting air cells to make the seating position more comfortable over longer distances. There is also an elaborate new Bose stereo system that genuinely takes in-car entertainment to a higher plane. The Audi-like dashboard is simply laid out but elegant in its details. And the use of real wood trim is among the best out there, Jaguar included.
Noise levels in the cabin are way down, almost to Lexus LS400 levels, says Cadillac, but under full acceleration, the Northstar engine makes a satisfying roar that you will not hear in a Lexus.
Ergonomically, there remains some work to be done — the automatic shifter is clunky and awkward to use, and some of the switches feel imprecise — but overall the driving environment is as good as or better than the rest.
For Cadillac to reacquire its long-faded reputation as the "standard of the world," the Seville faces an uphill battle. "It will take a stream of cars like the '98 Seville to convince people that we have our act together again," says Cadillac's recently appointed general manager, John Smith.
After years of talking about being a world player, it looks as if Cadillac is serious at last. And the Seville, with its impressive new credentials, is now good enough to make BMW, Benz, Jaguar and the rest sit up and take notice.--John McCormick
The Car Connection Consumer Review
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